An invitation to conduct a major orchestra is an offer no up-and-coming young conductor can refuse; but for most of them it's a lose-lose proposition. For either you yield to the orchestra's desire to perform the music in the manner to which they've grown accustomed, or you try to impose your views and risk squandering their good will. In the one case the conductor is labeled "too compliant"; in the other, "too difficult." In neither case is that conductor likely to be asked back; the guest rosters of the major orchestras are filled with names that appear for a season or two, never to return again. After Carlos Kleiber's sensational debut with the Chicago Symphony, a program that featured a fresh and exhilarating account of the Beethoven Fifth, a musician in the orchestra was heard to complain about the extra rehearsals the conductor had demanded: "For Christ's sake, we know how the Beethoven Fifth should go." Similar complaints were heard the next season when he returned for a glowing Brahms Fourth. Needless to say, Kleiber has been persona non grata in the windy city ever since.
Who is Oleg Caetani? Well, for one thing, he is, like Carlos Kleiber, the son of a famous maverick conductor -- in this case, Igor Markevitch. Since he took third prize in the 1982 Karajan competition, Caetani has guest conducted several outstanding bands, the Staatskapelle of Dresden and the Bavarian Radio Symphony to name only two. But mostly, he has hewn to the more difficult but rewarding path to artistic maturity, conducting second-tier orchestras such as the SDR of Stuttgart, the Yomiuri Orchestra of Tokyo, the Bamberg Symphony and of course, the Robert Schumann Philharmonic of Chemnitz, Germany, of which he has served as General Music Director since 1996. Leading such ensembles, nothing can be taken for granted: what the conductor says and does counts for everything. In Rome for several months a few years ago, I regularly attended the weekly concerts of the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, a second-tier ensemble if ever there was one. In the hands of lesser lights, and there were several, the orchestra could sound dreadful; ill prepared, uninvolved and coarse. Under the inspired guidance of someone like Carlo Maria Giulini, however, they could sound like one of the great orchestras of Europe. How to inspire such orchestras to play their best, how to earn their trust and invite their participation are questions a young conductor must find answers to or risk disaster. Judging from this remarkable performance, Caetani has learned how to evoke passionate response and utter commitment from his musicians, who play this complex and difficult score with both technical command and fire.
But even so, it must have seemed a great leap of faith by the Arts Music label to launch a new series of recordings with a largely unknown conductor and orchestra, and to begin with Mahler's most demanding symphony. That faith has been justly rewarded, for this performance stands comparison with any in the catalogue.
Although its five movements were written independently and over a period of seven years, the Second (along with the much shorter Fourth) is the most cohesive and structurally unified symphony Mahler ever wrote. No work in the symphonic repertory demands more concentration over a greater span of time. Based on the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven in several important ways--the use of a chorus in the last movement being only one -- the Resurrection is Mahler's "Ode to Joy." Appropriately enough, it begins with a grief that "convulses our deepest being," and ends, eighty or so minutes later with a soaring ascent into otherworldly radiance.
The two principal approaches to recording this score are represented by Klemperer (in his only recording of the work) and Bernstein (in his third and last go-round with the NYPH on DG); performances that find both conductors working pretty much at the top of their form. Above all, Klemperer is concerned with structure -- a crucial consideration in this score -- and though neither inflexible nor inexpressive, he resists any temptation to indulge the emotional character of the music. His restraint pays big dividends in the final movement, which generates an implacable sense of inevitability. But overall, one misses the feeling of urgency--of tumult and violence, of wildness and abandon. For at least in the first three movements the symphony pictures a world tottering on the edge of an abyss, and there should be an instability that discomforts and keeps us off balance. Bernstein, as ever, is a creature of the moment, and he absolutely revels in the ferocity and unpredictability of the music. Unfortunately, after all that excitement the choral finale sounds just a bit anticlimactic and disappointing.
Caetani is neither as severe as Klemperer nor as freewheeling as Bernstein. He strikes a balance that's attentive to both the architecture of the score and the extreme contrasts that provide its force and character. In no other version that I've heard is this vast and complicated structure laid out in bolder relief or given a more natural sense of ebb and flow. Every gesture is expressive and advances the drama.
Over the course of the first movement, for example, the secondary theme -- in Caetani's hands intensely vulnerable -- sounds ever more defeated, exhausted, as the disruptive and violent C minor 'funeral march" grows more ominous and terrifying. Here the menace has its own deadly momentum, and at the end of the movement the explosion of violence is made to sound irrevocable, chillingly final. Though the opening of the Andante Moderato isn't performed at the tempo of a true landler, I've never heard it played more tenderly, more in the spirit of "sad recollection" that Mahler wanted. But it isn't long before an insinuating, nerve-rattling theme (based, appropriately enough, on the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth) undermines the idyll, and Caetani shapes the end of the movement to sound both wistful and shadowy, creepier than we're used to hearing it. In the scherzo, we are returned to the "ceaseless agitation" of the present, to a superficial gaiety that verges on panic and hysteria. And here Caetani captures the fleeting, restless, and intensely parodistic swing of the music. The apocalyptic climax that ends the movement is truly shocking, even if you know it's coming. Here is Mahler at his most prophetic: the apparitional world of turn-of-the-century Vienna disappearing into the sinkhole of the Great War.
I was at first a little put off by the heaviness of Monika Straube's voice, but she sings the Urlicht with such unaffected simplicity that she soon won me over. And Caetani makes the most of this short movement, gently caressing each phrase, and thereby reminding us that the radical innocence of the Wunderhorn songs stands at the very heart of the work as a whole. But nowhere are his command and concentration more impressive than in the last movement, which he shapes as one vast, unified arch. Caetani builds the entire movement (if not the entire performance) to the soprano singing, "O believe my heart/All is not lost for you!" And when it finally arrives, that moment strikes with overwhelming force. As Mahler described his intent to Bruno Walter, in the Resurrection Symphony the listener is "battered to the ground with clubs and then lifted to the heights on angels' wings." And so, a word of warning: I wouldn't plan on doing much of anything after listening to this powerhouse of a performance. Watching the late afternoon sunset fill the room was about as much as I could bear.
I've always believed there's a moral dimension to recording. Some producers spread a vast array of microphones over the orchestra, and then sit behind the control panel adjusting and finagling to give us an idealized sense of what they hear in their heads. Unfortunately, what's usually lost in such recordings is the individual character of the performers or the orchestra or the hall in which the recording was made. That's certainly not the case here. This is one of the most stunningly realistic recordings I've ever heard, and the sense of presence, of actually being there in the hall, is both convincing and heart-stopping. I can't say I've ever been taken so deeply inside this music before; Mahler's orchestration has never seemed more transparent or affecting. Thanks to the engineers, every detail registers and not a note is lost, even in the most complex, dissonant passages. If the sound here happens to remind you of the fabled Mercury Living Presence or RCA Living Stereo recordings, that's not a coincidence, for this recording was made with the same kind of self-effacing dedication and honesty. That the performance we hear is "live" only makes this recording all the more amazing. I should add that a DVD of the same performance, which the producers claim sounds even better, accompanies the two CD's. My listening comparisons seem to confirm their claim. But no one who listens to the CDs alone will be in any way disappointed.
Recently DG has launched a major publicity campaign to promote a new performance of this symphony with Gilbert Kaplan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. As you might remember, Kaplan is the former financial wizard who stole a page from everyone's Book of Dreams by learning how to conduct this single work, and then hiring the London Symphony to play and record it. His Vienna recording is based on a new critical edition that the Mahler Society has now made the standard edition of the work, but I don't hear much difference between this and the older recording except for tempos that seem marginally slower. Kaplan's selling point is authenticity: the claim that other versions of this work are based on corrupt sources and that his performance alone represents Mahler's true wishes. In this regard we owe Kaplan a debt of gratitude, for he has proven that a conductor can follow every notation and instruction of the printed score with scrupulous care and exactitude, and still produce a performance that's earthbound and dull. And the DG engineers prove that they can make the Vienna Philharmonic sound like any ten other world-class orchestras. And the Vienna Philharmonic itself proves that it still has serious inhibitions when it comes to playing Mahler symphonies. So chalk up another victory for David over Goliath. Caetani's vision and authority, his orchestra's thrilling response, and the Arts Music engineers' integrity make this the Mahler Second of choice, and one of the most important orchestral recordings in years.